A 1960s Man-Cub Wises Up
I just wanted to be Dopey.
While all the other dwarfs clomped around Disneyland in lock step, Dopey got to dawdle and wander, hamming it up for adoring tourists -- especially teenage girls. When it came to the Seven Dwarfs, Dopey was the big draw.
Me? I wore tights and a loincloth, an embarrassing ensemble for a skinny 14-year-old coming of age in the turbulent 1960s.
I was Mowgli (a.k.a. Man-Cub), the wayward boy from Disney’s animated classic “The Jungle Book.” As one of Disneyland’s characters, I hung around the park with an ape named King Louie and a bear named Baloo. Their costumes, built largely of fiberglass, were heavy and hot. The only thing heavy on me was the thick layer of cinnamon-brown makeup that Disney’s costumers smeared on my face to darken my complexion.
Amid all the hype Walt Disney Co. has generated over the park’s 50th anniversary this summer, don’t expect to see any parades for employees like me. Being a character is like being a spy for the CIA; you’re not supposed to discuss your work. Disney executives take that Magic Kingdom stuff very seriously. They want visitors to forget that real people inhabit those lovable costumes.
For decades, the characters have been an integral part of the Disneyland experience. One pat on the head from Mickey or Minnie can send a kid into orbit quicker than a ride on Space Mountain. Even the park’s lesser known mice -- Gus and Jacques from Cinderella -- can attract a crush of youngsters.
None of this has been lost on the Disney marketeers. These days, for a price, you can dine with the characters. You can also buy an autograph book in the park’s gift shops. The odds are good you’ll score a signature because there are more characters now than ever. Whenever Disney hits big with an animated movie, its characters soon hit Main Street.
That’s how I got my job.
It was October 1967, when Disney released “The Jungle Book,” a very loose adaptation of the writings of Rudyard Kipling. In the movie, Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther try to get Mowgli to leave the jungle, where he was raised by wolves, and join human civilization. Along the way, the boy encounters a voracious snake and a cool-cat orangutan, King Louie.
I was recruited as Disneyland’s first Mowgli by a park executive named Marvin Marker. He oversaw the characters and was then casting for Disneyland’s annual Christmas parade. He also was the director of a marching band in which I played the clarinet, poorly. For years, Marvin used the kids in the Long Beach Junior Concert Band to play the characters. For many of us, it was a chance to earn our first paycheck -- at Southern California’s premiere playground.
When the holiday parade season ended, King Louie, Baloo and I were kept aboard to work weekends and full time during school breaks. Because I was so young, Disneyland executives had to get a special waiver from the state by insisting they could find no one older than me to play the 10-year-old Mowgli. Although I can’t be certain, I think I was paid $1.85 an hour.
Although hundreds of performers marched and danced in the parades, the year-round character crew was small -- and all male, except for the likes of Snow White, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. The elder statesman was Paul Castle Sr., now 81. He became Mickey in 1961 and didn’t stop for 25 years. Even before Disneyland opened its gates in July 1955, the 4-foot-6 acrobat was wearing character costumes -- with skates -- in Disney-themed Ice Capades shows.
Most of us, however, were in our teens and early 20s, growing up in a institution viewed by some in our restless generation as a symbol of conformity and greed in the heart of conservative Orange County. One day in 1970, a group of anti-Vietnam War “Yippies” forced Disney to close early when they laid claim to Tom Sawyer’s Island and promptly fired up joints.
Although less radicalized, we young characters were also products of our time, chafing under Disneyland’s famously tight rules governing the appearance of its employees.
The most absurd of those for me was the hair-above-the-ear regulation.
In “The Jungle Book,” Mowgli’s dark locks fell nearly to his shoulders. Not mine. I had the loincloth, but Disney wouldn’t let me have the long hair. My Mowgli looked as though he’d joined the ROTC, which led to some confusion.
Park patrons didn’t know what to make of me as I stood between King Louie and Baloo in Adventureland, our assigned location to mingle with the crowds. Often, I was asked to step aside by someone wanting a snapshot of the ape and the bear. They must have thought I was just some weird half-naked kid, although a well groomed one. I stood my ground, proclaiming that I was Mowgli and that I wasn’t going anywhere. Although defiant on the outside, I felt humiliated on the inside.
I agitated for a year to have the rules relaxed so I could grow my hair longer to look more like my character -- and more like my friends on the outside. Instead, my bosses ended the debate by plopping a bad wig on my head and telling me to get a haircut.
Most of our rebellion struck at the very essence of our job: the amount of time we were supposed to spend among the park’s guests. Back then, it was 40 minutes “on set,” followed by a 20 minute break. That was tolerable for a semi-clad teen. But for someone in a smothering sauna of fake fur and fiberglass, that was a long time, especially when they were also getting grabbed and kicked by kids who loved to torment the characters. The solution: go into hiding. We called it a “crowd break.”
No matter which character we played, each of us knew every nook and cranny, every secret hideaway, in the turf we were assigned to work, be it Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland or Adventureland. The trick was not getting caught by our beleaguered supervisor, Alex. In hindsight, Alex probably was only a few years our senior. But he wore a dark jacket and a tie, and to us he was The Man.
One hot, crowded summer day, King Louie, Baloo and I -- the Jungle Book Three -- decided to take our crowd break to a new level. At the edge of Adventureland stood the relatively unpopular Swiss Family Treehouse, a perfect place to ditch the crowds. No characters had ever hidden on an attraction. It was a major infraction.
Our journey began ominously. I had to use all my weight, maybe 100 pounds, to push Baloo through the turnstile entrance when his huge bottom got stuck. We then slowly ascended the twisting staircase to the top, where we caught our breath and enjoyed the view -- until The Man entered our vision down below. Alex was pacing. He was mad. Finally, he asked the ticket taker if he’d seen us. The young man pointed skyward. That day we received reprimands but, more important, we got the admiration of our costumed colleagues.
After about two years of portraying Mowgli, at around age 16, I was tired of watching cute teenage girls giggle at my get-up. So I pleaded with King Louie to let me take his costume for a spin. It was too big. The hazel-colored fur bunched around my ankles. The ape’s low-hanging rubber knuckles skidded on the concrete. But I had a bounce in my step as I left our small break area next to Disneyland’s newly opened Pirates of the Caribbean.
Cameras clicked and children screamed for my attention. Within minutes I was sweating. The rule of thumb in those days was that, whatever the temperature outside, it was 30 degrees hotter inside the character heads. Still, the heat didn’t melt my enthusiasm. I felt the love of the crowd, not the ridicule that came with being the Jungle Boy.
Then there was a voice. Alex’s voice. “Where’s Baloo and Mowgli?” Scared, I raised my thick furry arms in mock puzzlement. Then it hit him. He realized that he was bending lower than usual to talk to King Louie. When Alex escorted me back to our rest area, I got a stern lecture. But I’d also finally been heard. It was time for a costume change.
Soon, I joined the anonymous ranks of the fully costumed. Over time, the characters I played ran the gamut. One summer, I worked as a chipmunk, although I can’t remember whether it was Chip or Dale. Only their noses were different.
I also served a stint as Gus, one of the big-footed mice who stitched Cinderella’s ball gown. One evening, I was spinning along a parade route lined with spectators six-deep, when one of my huge shoes got stuck in a trolley track. When I hit the asphalt, Gus’ head rocketed off my shoulders. At that instant, soaking with sweat, I was blinded by a wall of white light -- a simultaneous flash of cameras. I was the first character to lose his head on Main Street, a moment likely memorialized in hundreds of dusty old photo albums of people I’ll never meet.
Among my other roles were Mr. Smee, from Peter Pan, and Pinocchio, a bona-fide character superstar whose identity no one had to guess. Then finally my wish came true. I was Dopey. I didn’t miss for a minute the loincloth, the tights, the makeup, the wig, the skin-toned ballet shoes. I had joined the brotherhood of real characters. At last I could cut loose.
The Seven Dwarfs were a formidable force. In numbers, they were bigger than any other character unit. Winnie the Pooh, for example, was accompanied then only by Tigger and Eeyore, whose costume was notoriously difficult because of the forward-tilted weight of the head. More than one Eeyore fainted during my time at the park. Most of the top-tier characters were solo operators -- Mickey, Donald, Goofy and Pluto.
Seven dwarfs meant there were seven unique individuals inside those costumes, raising the potential for mischief. Say, for instance, a kid was harassing us, maybe throwing punches at our rubber faces or daring his buddies to deliver a kick to a sensitive area of the anatomy.
Doc, the boss dwarf, would yell, “Crowd control!” We’d form a tight circle around the offender, hiding him from view, and start twirling in place. “Look, they’re dancing!” someone in the crowd would inevitably exclaim. As we spun, the fake arms attached to the costume would rise from centrifugal force, repeatedly belting our trapped troublemaker, who’d think twice before messing with the dwarfs again.
Some characters, depending on the character of the person inside the costume, would take things further. The temptation to cross the line is ever present when your identity is hidden, as I learned after leaving Mowgli behind. Young women flock to the characters, snuggling close and throwing their arms around them. Some of us, including me, would break the rules and set up rendezvous in the park at night after our shifts. (My favorite make-out place was the Snow White ride in Fantasyland.)
There were other characters, however, who were more predatory, seizing a photo opportunity with a young lady as a chance to grope her. I remember when one of the Three Little Pigs got caught for sexually inappropriate conduct and was quietly told to leave.
On one unforgettable day, I heard some commotion after walking into a back lot at Disneyland, where Space Mountain now sits. With my Dopey head propped on my hip, I turned and saw three teenage girls, who had been coaxed backstage by one of the dwarfs. His head was off, too, and he was talking dirty. Really dirty. Another dwarf, who would later ask me to be the best man at his wedding, was standing next to me. We both told our lewd colleague to stop. He wouldn’t. The girls bolted back into the park.
A few weeks later, Alex pulled the three of us dwarfs aside. He read us a letter the girls had sent to top Disneyland executives, recounting the episode. I was cleared, as was my friend. That was the last I saw of the lecherous dwarf.
Of course, guys like him were the exception. Still, the incident soured me at a time when I already was feeling I’d outgrown the character life. I had spent my most formative teen years at the park, learning the art of interacting with people of all ages, from all walks of life. Now, I was ready to move out of the Happiest Place on Earth.
Today, I’m 52, the father of a 12-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy who wouldn’t be caught dead in a loincloth. I’ve been in the newspaper business for three decades, most of them spent here at The Times as a reporter and editor. I now oversee business coverage of the entertainment industry, including Walt Disney Co.
I’d long known that my years at Disneyland made for funny stories. Now, with the park’s 50th anniversary approaching, I had an opportunity to share them in print. And I realized they were about more than high jinks and sweat.
I set out to track down my friends who’d ambled beside me as King Louie and Baloo. Journalistically, I needed to interview them. Personally, I wanted to reconnect with a past that had helped shaped my present.
A researcher at the paper came up with some possible phone numbers. I struck out a few times. Then this:
“Hello,” said a cheery-voiced woman.
I told her I was looking for a Dennis Bruce who’d worked at Disneyland. She said her Dennis had done just that.
“Tell him Mowgli’s on the phone,” I said.
In the background, I heard a bellow as loud as a bear: “Mowgli?! Joel?!”
It had been three decades since I’d talked with Dennis, who played Baloo. He told me that he’d stayed with Disney about 15 years in all. By the time he left in 1983, he’d worked his way up to the entertainment division’s management ranks.
“I grew up there. I matured there,” said Dennis, who lives in Yorba Linda with his wife and teenage daughter.
Since then, he’s worked as a planner for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, sold restaurant equipment and managed record storage facilities. In each job, he said, he’s been well served by his days as a Disney character.
“I really feel like after working there I could work at any size company, even the federal government,” he said. Rules and regulations? His experience in the park taught him how to work with them and around them. It also taught him self-control.
“You learn how to stand a lot of abuse and control yourself when you want to pound on somebody,” he said, recalling the bullying he took in costume.
He has remained in close touch with the community of former characters, many of whom chat on the phone or on websites. One of the dwarfs married Minnie Mouse, he told me. He said a bunch of ex-characters from our era still get together a couple times a year for potlucks. He said that even Jack Abato, who lives on the other side of country, had shown up at four or five of the gatherings.
Jack was King Louie. I’d known him since my clarinet clashed with his trumpet in the Long Beach marching band. Last time I saw him he was a medal-winning high school gymnast in Anaheim who dreamed of greater glory. Now he’s in Alabama, working for a security products company.
He picked up the phone and the years disappeared as we swapped stories. He’s on his second marriage. So am I. He’s got three kids, two grown. I remember when the eldest was born, 35 years ago. He asked after my mom. I told him she’s sprightly as ever but that my sister, whom he knew well, had died at 28.
I expressed my regrets for the passing of both his parents and then asked what became of his all-consuming athletic ambitions. He told me something I didn’t know: A swift kick in the knee from a kid in the park had put an end to his quest. “It ruined my gymnastic career,” he said. “My knee swelled up like a balloon every time I tumbled.”
But he has other memories, too. There were those moments when a shy child was too awed and frightened by the sight of a huge, hairy orangutan to edge a step closer. Jack learned, as all of us did, how to reach out -- gently winning their affection with playful kindness. Being a character was more than bucking authority and flirting with girls. Sometimes, it was good for the soul.
“And that,” Jack said, “makes you feel good.”
For me, I’d long viewed my years at Disneyland as simply a novelty. But actually, it was more. I had learned how to rise above self-consciousness. I had learned the importance of tenacity and teamwork. Above all, being Mowgli taught me that work can be hard, so it’s got to be fun.
And as I sit here typing, it occurs to me: There’s nothing Dopey about that.